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Breaking barriers and building cars: How students in Delhi are leaning in

The Mechanical Engineering Lean In Circle is a group of students at Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women that learn and grow together. They are a part of the Lean In India Network of Circles across India.

Through the maze of Chandni Chowk, one of the densest open-air markets in Delhi, Aanchal Verma makes a beeline for the car parts section. She leads seven other students, dodging motorcycles, cows, and cold comments from men unaccustomed to seeing young women outside of the wedding or jewelry sections of the market. The shops are not much wider than the rickshaws littered on the street. Aanchal navigates the organized chaos with confidence, in search of bearings for their all-terrain vehicle and a new car battery for the Formula 1 car they are testing the next day.

Students walk through the market reviewing what materials they need. Right: Rashmeet Kaur and other mechanical engineering students purchasing car parts.

The first shop owner dismisses her request for specific car parts, saying he is too busy to talk to a girl. There is no one else in the shop. Aanchal is unphased. This was a common incident. “No one in this market would think I was a mechanical engineer building a car to compete internationally,” she shrugs. “Even if I told them, they probably wouldn’t believe it.” The other students nod in agreement as they walk to the next one.

Aanchal Verma runs a Circle meeting on the field at Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women, with new and returning students.

Aanchal runs the Lean In Network at Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women (IGDTUW), where hundreds of students sign up each school year to participate in one of their campus Circles—small groups of students who learn and grow together. The university is one of the best schools in Delhi for women pursuing technical degrees—and where the Lean In India Network first began.

Rashmeet Kaur and Sanya Khurana founded the country’s first Lean In Circle almost four years ago after watching Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk about why there aren’t enough women in leadership. The ideas they later found in the pages of Lean In resonated immediately, especially the idea of Imposter Syndrome, when women doubt their accomplishments and qualifications and internalize a false notion of not being good enough.

Rashmeet says, “Before officially starting a Circle, I was leaning in without the label. Someone close to me actually said I couldn’t survive in a technical course because I was ‘too sissy.’” She wanted to prove them wrong.

Left: The design team discusses options for the vehicle plan. Right: One student tightens a bolt on the all-terrain vehicle.

Before officially starting a Circle, I was leaning in without the label. Someone close to me actually said I couldn’t survive in a technical course because I was ‘too sissy.’

This type of gender bias is common for women in male-dominated fields. Women in heavy industry in India—such as auto, electrical, and mechanical engineering—are few and far between. Being at an all-women’s technical university alleviates some of that burden, but ingrained social norms and familial expectations leads to a lack of confidence in many students. But woman by woman, Circle by Circle, the students at this university are changing that.

Young students attach the wheel on the all-terrain vehicle in process.

The success of Rashmeet’s first Circle—10 young women she gathered to work through their lack of confidence, take initiative in their lives, and ambitiously move toward their goals—spawned more than she could’ve imagined. There are now Circles on campus for confidence building, coding, public speaking, applying electronics, and car building.

Left: Aanchal discusses how to apply the principles from class to their car project. Right: Students share notes for an upcoming exam.

The momentum of Lean In Circles on the IGDTUW campus grew genuinely, and with purpose. Many women on campus were eager to connect with one another about how to survive a technical course others thought they might be too sissy for—and also thrive in a field they love.

They support one another when times get tough. The women recount countless nights they’ve spent inside the car workshop before competitions. Sometimes they hit a dead end on a project and rely on one another to problem solve. And it’s this solidarity with their classmates they carry on when they face the toughest obstacle: transitioning from an all women’s technical university to a job in the field. “We go from being surrounded by other female technical students—from engineers to coders —to a job where you instantly become the minority.”

Left:Rashmeet Kaur and Aanchal Verma hug on campus. Right: The Mechanical Engineering Circle eats lunch outside of the car workshop.

The mechanical engineering Circle Aanchal runs acts as a space for practical application of their degree: while the classroom is filled with diagrams of hydraulics and equations of lift and drag, they girls gather in the auto workshop after school hours to assemble actual vehicles from scratch. They spend the majority of their time together in the workshop, but also host Circle meetings focused on skill-building, where they learn from Lean In resources on building confidence or becoming leaders.

The Mechanical Engineering Circle meets for a Circle meeting, and use Connection Cards to kick off the night.

Building a car is no small feat. An all-terrain vehicle is vastly different than a supermileage car, which looks nothing like a solar-powered vehicle. Depending on the type of car, it takes one to two years to complete—from design to sourcing materials to fabrication to testing. Throughout the journey, the Circle memberslearn software that their teachers have never mentioned in class and navigate an environment ready to shut them out at every step.

They often schedule regular Circle meetings with set topics, such as strategies for talking to their parents about their ambitions as mechanical engineers or how to lead with confidence when running a project like building a car. But even among classes, job interviews, and extracurricular activities, Circle members carry the values and strategies they learn to support and lean on one another.

The fruits of their labor have already bloomed. Just over a year ago, under Rashmeet’s leadership, one of the car building teams within the Mechanical Engineering Circle competed in the SAE Supermileage Competition in the United States. They named the working group Team Panthera, and they ranked seventh globally.

The Circle’s engineering team, Team Panthera, was the only all-women's group in the history of the SAE Supermileage Competition to compete.

A student cuts a piece of metal for the all-terrain vehicle. Right: A student poses in front of the completed vehicle.

More impressively, Team Panthera was the only all-women's group to compete in the history of the competition. It was the vehicle built out of their determination, ambition, and drive.

Back in the market, Aanchal finally sources the car parts she needs, rising above disparaging remarks from male shopkeepers and keeping her focus on the larger goal of her Circle: building the best car to compete in the upcoming competition.

When Aanchal and her seven teammates arrive back in the car workshop after their excursion gathering parts, they share with the rest of the women what happened. Slipping seamlessly between Hindi and English, they laugh it off and get to work proving their worth.